An ‘India Out’ Campaign Gathers Pace in Bangladeshi Social Media

Activists have called for a boycott of Indian products in protest against India’s support of the Awami League’s manipulation of elections in Bangladesh.

Following yet another one-sided general election in January, which saw the ruling Awami League (AL) return to power for the fourth straight term, Bangladeshi social media influencers launched an “India Out” campaign, mirroring similar campaigns seen in the Maldives.

The India Out campaign reflects public discontent among sections of the Bangladeshi public regarding not only the ruling AL’s manipulation of the recent election in its favor but also India’s silence on the democratic backsliding in Bangladesh. Activists say that India’s backing of the AL is to protect its own economic and security interests. In the process, New Delhi has undermined Bangladesh’s democratic aspirations.

This has prompted social media activists to call for a boycott of Indian products in Bangladesh and abroad to protest “India’s relentless meddling in Bangladesh’s domestic affairs.”

Successive elections held over the past decade in Bangladesh have witnessed widespread irregularities and manipulation by the ruling AL, raising concerns about the integrity of Bangladesh’s democratic processes. India is widely perceived to have shaped the political landscape not only by ignoring the AL’s manipulation of elections but also by allegedly influencing the choice of election candidates.

There is concern too in Bangladesh over the weakness of institutions such as the judiciary and law enforcement agencies, which have been weaponized to crush political opposition and dissent. India is believed to wield considerable influence over these institutions. In his book, “1971-2021: Bangladesh-Bharat Shomporker Ponchash Bochor,” Bangladesh’s former Foreign Secretary Touhid Hossain pointed out that “India’s consent is a prerequisite for appointments to key positions within Bangladesh.” There is a perception too in Bangladesh that the Indian Embassy influences key decision-making processes in the civilian and military bureaucracies.

These perceptions of India have now snowballed into the “India Out” campaign on social media.

However, there are concerns regarding the long-term efficacy of the campaign. India and Bangladesh share a complex relationship that draws heavily on a blend of historical ties, geopolitical interests, and socioeconomic interdependencies.

Bangladesh is heavily dependent on imports from India; its imports from India in fiscal year 2022 were worth $16.16 billion. Given this heavy reliance on India for essential items such as food, fuel, fertilizer, and industrial raw materials and lacking the capacity for substitution of these imports with domestic produce, a reduction in Indian imports may force Bangladesh to import from China. It will increase Bangladesh’s dependence on China. The India Out campaign also has potential implications for Bangladesh’s corporate sector, particularly in software and service-based businesses, as well as the hiring of Indian skilled workers and experts in Bangladesh.

Critics of the India Out campaign argue that it risks diverting attention from fundamental issues such as electoral malpractice and institutional weaknesses.

However, proponents contend that it serves as a means of expressing dissent and holding authorities accountable.

Although it is the AL that is engaging in electoral fraud, it is India that is often held accountable for the former’s actions. This has been true historically as well.

In 1975, for example, when the AL government shut down newspapers, banned political parties, and established the one-party Bangladesh Krishak Sramik Awami League or BaKSAL system, India was blamed. Many believe that were it not for India’s support, the AL wouldn’t have dared take such a major step.

There is concern that vested interests could resort to underhanded tactics to disrupt the boycott campaign. They could target Hindus, oppress minorities, or even intimidate Indian expatriates working in Bangladesh to create chaos and blame the opposition. Some fear that the India Out campaign might be a strategy to sow long-lasting animosity between India and Bangladesh’s opposition parties, potentially benefiting the ruling party.

Surprisingly, the government doesn’t appear overly concerned about this campaign. Some speculate that this indifference could stem from perceived benefits, such as reducing imports and saving foreign currency, which could be advantageous amid the ongoing economic crisis.

India must address these anti-India perceptions and reexamine the historical context underlying the increasing anti-India wave in Bangladesh.

Instead of directly calling for an India Out campaign, Bangladeshi activists should create bridges among civil society organizations, reach out to academia and research institutions and engage them in dialogue. While the right to boycott products is universal, the crucial step is to convince India to focus on collaborating with any government elected by the people of Bangladesh. It’s essential to intellectually alert India to the consequences of maintaining exclusive ties with the AL alone to the exclusion of other parties and groups.

Bangladeshi social media activists should use Indian civil society, academia, and diplomatic channels to convince the Indian establishment to respect the democratic aspirations of Bangladeshis and to foster relationships with all parties representing the people of Bangladesh.

Originally Published: The Diplomat, March 15, 2024

তড়িৎ প্রকৌশলী, বুয়েট। টেকসই উন্নয়নবিষয়ক লেখক। গ্রন্থকার: চতুর্থ শিল্পবিপ্লব ও বাংলাদেশ; বাংলাদেশ: অর্থনীতির ৫০ বছর; অপ্রতিরোধ্য উন্নয়নের অভাবিত কথামালা; বাংলাদেশের পানি, পরিবেশ ও বর্জ্য।

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